The two men, who are homeless and asked to be referred to by only their first names because of concern about stigma, are looking for ways to winterize the tents in an encampment near the West River where they have stayed since May.
They are unable to dig holes or start a fire on the land, because the encampment’s existence relies on the city’s non-enforcement of the ordinance that prohibits such encampments.
And with cold weather approaching as a second surge of COVID-19 infections rages, public health and housing officials in the local region and state — like residents of the encampment — are making preparations, theirs aiming to accommodate people experiencing homelessness while mitigating virus spread. So far, those preparations are similar to the approach taken last spring at the onset of the virus in Connecticut, with officials renting hotel rooms with federal dollars.
But at the encampment, which has been visited by city officials, including New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, the fire marshal’s office set forth safety guidelines and compliance regulations for it.
John, sitting in a lawn chair several feet away from Eric and sipping from a mug with coffee that he purchased and brewed for everyone in the group, recalled that city officials said it was the cleanest encampment they’d seen.
“They don’t have any other solutions” to address homelessness in the midst of a pandemic, said Mark Colville, co-founder of the Amistad Catholic Worker House, which has supplied materials for the encampment such as the tents and propane tanks for a grill.
So with fewer options than usual for places where homeless people can gather or stay warm, the city has tolerated the encampment — which is about one-tenth of a mile away from the nearby highway, according to Colville and others.
“If it weren’t for this, I’d probably still be sleeping on a bench” in East Rock Park, Eric said.
The encampment, which those involved refer to as a tent village because of the way the residents live as a community and make decisions democratically, has a strict policy against using drugs in the common area. After a couple staying in the encampment had a heated argument, John said he had to ask them to leave.
According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness online statistics, in January 2019, Connecticut had “an estimated” 3,033 people experiencing homelessness on any given day, and this was according reports by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The 2020 Point-in-Time count found 2,904 people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut, which was a 4 percent decrease since 2019 and a 35 percent decrease since 2007, Hearst Connecticut Media reported.
Steve DiLella, director of the Individual and Family Support Program at the Connecticut Department of Housing, said 825 hotel rooms were rented in 13 hotels across the state to deconcentrate shelters in March. He said shelters decreased their capacity by about 60 percent, allowing for more social distancing.
“As the summer months wore on and our positivity rate decreased, we were able to decrease our hoteling rooms to about 200 rooms total,” DiLella said.
Connecticut officials each month applied for and were granted Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for hotel rooms, which covered 75 percent of the costs of the hotels. For the other 25 percent, DiLella said the state was able to use other federal grants to supplement the remainder of the cost.
The New Haven region was an exception in the state, he said, for maintaining its hoteling program instead of attempting to reopen shelters. Now, all but the Eastern region of the state are looking to scale up their hoteling shelter programs.
“As we move into winter months, different communities have slightly different strategies,” said Richard Cho, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. “It differs by whether communities feel like they have enough shelter capacity even with their reduced-capacity levels.”
Cho said regional response networks also have been working in collaboration with each other to coordinate regular COVID-19 testing for homeless shelter clients and shelter workers. Of 1,400 COVID tests that have been reported, he said there have been 31 positive cases and no deaths.
Connecticut has had one of the most aggressive responses to isolating homeless individuals by reserving hotel rooms, officials said. Cho said officials in other states are using strategies of reserving hotel rooms for people who already tested positive but need somewhere separate to shelter.
“Hoteling has been shown nationally, through initial data from the Centers for Disease Control, that it has resulted in the prevention of outbreaks,” Cho said.
Phil Costello, a street outreach worker for Cornell Scott Hill Health, said he believes hotels are one of the best public health interventions the state could do.
“It is protecting the people of the city” he said.
He said it keeps homeless people from clustering inside fast-food restaurants or large stores for warmth and it also gives them a place where they can become organized. He said many homeless people don’t have phones, or, if they do, don’t have minutes or battery power, which can make them difficult to reach. Providing hotel rooms makes it easier to reach homeless people and they can call service providers at 2-1-1 with ease.
John Brooks, chief development officer for the New Haven-based homeless services organization Columbus House, said there were plans to return people back to shelters in September, but a positive test among a staff member meant all but one shelter-based worker had to quarantine for two weeks.
“We had no choice but to put the clients back into the hotel,” he said. “With the increase in cases around the state it looked like that was going to happen anyway, but with our staff having to quarantine, it was the best move for us and it was the safest move for us.”
During the pandemic, shelter employees are providing resources at hotel shelters. Additionally, volunteers who ordinarily make operations such as mealtimes possible logistically are currently banned from visiting the premises. Because of this, Brooks said shelter systems like Columbus House are stretched thin on staff resources.
According to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, more than 350 of those who have been rehoused since the start of the pandemic were in the city’s shelter system.
“It’s so important for us to make sure individuals experiencing homelessness have housing at this time,” he said.
Separate from shelters in the colder winter months are warming centers — ordinarily community centers or church basements where homeless individuals can go to stay out of the cold. However, because of poor ventilation in these spaces, the state also is looking toward using hotel rooms as warming centers.
“Our goal, ultimately, is to ensure we have the same warm spaces overnight,” DiLella said.
Brooks said in late November an overflow shelter opened at the Village Suites Hotel in New Haven for up to 30 clients. The ordinary traffic in the Columbus House overflow shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard would be around 75 clients, he said.
New Haven Community Services Administrator Mehul Dalal said the city expects about 300 city hotel rooms will be reserved for shelter and an additional 150 rooms will be used as warming centers.
“The reason we make that distinction is warming centers are low barrier and serve a distinct population,” he said.
At the onset of the pandemic, New Haven officials caused a stir by repurposing Hill Regional Career High School into a field shelter for homeless individuals who tested positive or needed somewhere to isolate, to keep them away from public areas and shelters. Dalal said the city has no plans to re-establish that facility.
“We were anticipating a large demand for that facility, but (probably) a total of 15 people were served in a two- to three-month period,” he said.
John and Eric, who reside at the West River encampment, both say they are hopeful they’ll get a call one day that a hotel room has opened for them.
John said work is difficult for him as he is disabled — his right foot is amputated, and there is a deep wound on his left foot. He said he became homeless 15 years prior after going into medical debt from pancreatic cancer.
Eric said a large part of being homeless in Connecticut is waiting — when his phone did not have any battery, he borrowed a phone from another tent village member to call 211. After he was on hold for longer than 20 minutes, he hung up because he felt he could not burn through his friend’s finite cellphone minutes.
“They make us jump through all kinds of hoops,” John said. “It’s not their money. I shouldn’t have to wait a month to get a room.”
“They want us to prove we’re homeless,” Eric said.
The tent village that operates near the West River is sustained through philanthropy and donations. An online fundraising link for the encampment said $150 is enough to provide winter materials for one resident of the encampment — such as a sleeping bag and a heavy blanket as well as a solar-powered, rechargeable battery for personal electronics.
Eric said the materials they do have help greatly. Although solar panels for charging phones only work well when it’s sunny, he said he’s been able to charge his phone during the day.
“They’re the most important thing in the camp,” John said.
DiLella said that although the state is working to depopulate shelters and provide hotel rooms for homeless residents to give them a non-congregate, warm place to stay, the best solution is to find people permanent housing.
“Obviously having your own home is the best place to be in normal times, but it’s also the best place to be to quarantine if needed during COVID,” he said.
DiLella said the state during summer was able to procure housing for about 1,000 people through a combination of community partnerships and additional resources — including more resources from the federal government. He said the state received about $8.5 million in funding for rapid rehousing — two years of rent subsidies and counseling to offer stability so formerly homeless people could find permanent housing — as well as 200 permanent housing vouchers.
And while the state is finding housing, Brooks said the need is still there. As of the final week in November, he said, there was a waitlist of 284 people to get into a Columbus House shelter: 237 men and 47 women.